Op-ed: Finding Empowerment Through Futbol
July 13 2014 5:12 AM ET
I grew up loving futbol, watching men's soccer on Univision, especially the Copa America games and the World Cup games featuring Argentina. This was my team since birth — my mother is from Argentina and my father is from Paraguay. When I watched I wanted to be those guys, Maradona and Caniggia. I wanted the six-pack and the tight pectorals, not knowing how I would ever get them. I expressed my masculinity through the game, as a fan, but felt left out by the subtext during the competitions that defined who could and could not play.
Then a friend invited me to watch the Women's World Cup final between USA and Japan at a local eatery. I felt 15 again, all giddy. This time, it was women I was gushing over and that was OK. I didn’t have to hide it. It wasn’t the beer either. Damn it, I wanted to be a good feminist fan and enjoy the women's athletic skills. Soccer is soccer and there were hits and falls. But this game was different — I saw myself on the field. It was a revelation that brought me a step closer to the game I had always loved.
But it wasn't enough. I wanted to actually play the sport. But could I find a supportive and loving futbol familia that would accept me as I am and welcome me into the field?
I thought I would give this a try during the Los Angeles Futbolistas' weekly Sunday game. This L.A. group was supposed to be accepting, but I approached cautiously, because this would be the first time that I would be working with them to organize a game just for womyn, trans men and women and gender-nonconforming palyers.
The first time I played with the whole group, we circled up and one of the cisgender guys set the rules of these games. "Futbolistas is a team that plays together in the most beautiful way," he said. "We play like we want to live in the world. When I see you struggling with the ball, I will encourage you. When you are gaining momentum, I will support you. And no side-tackling, so we can go on to play another day." I couldn't believe it — here was a chance to both enjoy the push to score but at the same time play in a nonviolent, supportive way that was in line with the way I wanted to live my life.
At the same time, my heart pounding, I wanted to make sure the whole group felt comfortable before we started. "One more thing," I added, "I don't want to assume that all of us have the privilege to have our gender recognized by the rest of society, so when we introduce ourselves, please share your preferred gender pronoun, or PGP."
The men looked at me, I heard one of them was a semipro from Honduras and it was his first time playing with us, so I was more nervous.
"My name is Karen and my PGG is they/them."
Did I just score a goal? Damn, I didn’t think it would be so difficult to state my identity in the futbol circle-up. "Esa! Golazo! VAMOS."
Es verdad. Being visible is like scoring a goal in life.
It felt odd but thrilling when a month later the cisgender men took a step back and allowed me to organize a game just for the rest of us; cisgender mujeres, trans men and women, and gender-nonconforming players. It was odd but thrilling as the cisgender men stepped back while we played our match, never side-coaching us, just cheering us on. I felt like I had wings. My feet could not touch the ground, so my soccer skills were not impressive that day. I was playing a sport, but it felt more powerful than that — it was a game in which each person could be who they truly were on the field without shame and each player learned how be in solidarity with that. We chose and committed and struck that pass.
On the field with me were organizers for the Bus Riders’ Union, gender rights activists, artists and even progressive lawyers. It was a social justice dream team.
These Futbolistas embraced me like I was a part of their family. I was not invisible to them.
I soared thinking of the progressive international lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, undefined, intersex and asexual movements; President Obama's achievements, gay marriage being legalized across the U.S. I played celebrating the female presidents in Brazil and Argentina.
Then I remembered femicides, anti-abortion-laws, gender inequalities, the need for immigration reform, global violence against trans women of color, the murder of Treyvon Martin, the injustices in Brazil — the home of the 2014 World Cup.
Futbol could almost make us forget our struggles, especially during this inclusive futbol game, but not quite.
At the end of the game, we circled up once more, arm in arm, and reminded each other, "The score is always 2-2 no matter how many goals are actually scored or missed." In this match, all of us would be winners.
I had seen myself through the worst and the best times on the field, facing my fears and loving the possibilities and taking big strides with confidence. Viva la Mujer! Viva Futbol! Viva la comunidad transgenera! Viva los que no se conforman!
We are the soccer stars illuminating the present.
KAREN ANZOATEGUI created the solo show Ser to showcase love of soccer, Argentinian-Paraguayan, roots and other truths about life. The show premiered at the Los Angeles Theater Center and has gone on to tour at universities.